The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Hawking

Apart from me and Jeremy, Jade had another admirer, an Englishman a few years older than her. We never met.  When she first mentioned him to me, she giggled. They used to joke around, apparently. She teased him about his age.  He teased her about her figure, called her his lamp post – she was very thin.  But you know what men are like.  It was probably what attracted him to her. 
Anyway, he had loved her faithfully for a number of years with absolutely no reward.  Things weren’t about to change.  Titters again, but we can laugh a little, regarding lamp posts and girls.  Could he find nothing more romantic to say?  Perhaps she wouldn’t let him.  Toothpick, rake?  Better not mention it at all.  I don’t know if she called him something back, Fido, for instance.  His lamp post, her poodle. 
The point I’m making is that Jade was very thin.  Thin as a punting pole.  After our picnic in Cambridge, we hired a punt.  I was a novice.  Jeremy picked up the pole to show me what to do, and for a short while he propelled us very skilfully along a channel of the Cam.  Jade thought she’d have a go. Give it to me!  She had been on the river a few times.  She clutched the pole like a bird of prey.  I remember her arms, bare to the neck, just tendons and bone. 
She had to lean towards me to push down on the pole.  When her head came over, gravity did the rest with the front of her blouse.  The Cambridge physicists were spot on there.  It worked every time, before I had a chance to look away.  

            Lily pads, on the surface of the stream, the river sailed serenely by.  
Jade soon gave it up.  Jeremy looked asleep.  It was my turn to punt, and I did it for a long time.  They lay back in the boat and watched the trees on either bank touch branches overhead.  Now and again, Jeremy said, “You’re doing well.” 
The river then forgot his voice, and the bird calls and the splashes near the boat were all that you could hear.  Except for the hiss on Jade’s puny radio. 
We'd hired the boat for an hour or two.  When I stopped punting, Jeremy shed his final compliment.  The same one, in the past tense now.
I did well.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

No Hawking

Before Jeremy dumped her, Jade arranged a picnic.  I was coming to England.  If I wanted to see her, I’d have to see him, too.  In Cambridge.  It wasn’t where she lived, but she didn’t want me sniffing around her family home.  I can understand that, but why did she want me sniffing around Cambridge? Jeremy had studied there.  But a Jade picnic is not as simple as that.  If he’d studied somewhere which reminded her of Greece, she wouldn’t have had a picnic there.  For Jade, Cambridge was the antithesis of Greece – civilised, superior, British – the kind of place she felt she belonged.    

Jade’s sister and another girl made up the party.  We sat on the grass by the river.  There was a picnic hamper and a tablecloth.  Everything was just right, except the wine.  There wasn’t enough.  It had been my job.  I knew there’d be five people, but I only bought one bottle.  Wine’s expensive. Jade reprimanded me.  I’d made enough blunders in Greece, champagne ones.  The faux pas used to pop all day.  It may have amused her then, but Jeremy was with her now.  She wanted me to cork it.  

The embarrassment, however, had already begun.  On the way to the picnic, on a very nice road, I cleared my throat and spat on the footpath.  I’d been living in southern Europe for quite a while and, before that, India.  In parts of London, spitting is now against the law.  Local councils can impose a fine.  But this particular spit was a long time ago.  In Cambridge.  Cambridge is not like parts of London.  Even now, in that polite town, a law against spitting would be as timely as a law against feeding statues. 

When I spat, there was a young man on the footpath ahead of me.  He was probably a student.  I didn’t hit him.  He just heard my performance with the throat and tongue, looked sharply at me, and felt disgusted.  I knew not to spit in front of Jade, but I’m not sure why, on a perfect day by the river Cam, I brought up the subject of the Indian papers, their quality and how beneficial they were.  It was never going to interest the picnic group.  Jade was newly back from Greece.  Someone may have asked how she kept up with the British news. The British news was important in itself, but Greece only mattered because of Jade. No one was curious about India because no one was curious about me. They certainly didn’t request this vintage faux pas.

When I was living near Madras, I knew an English girl who read the Guardian Weekly.  She had a subscription.  Her copies were flown out from the UK.  After she read them, she would hand them on to me.  I was delighted.  News was hard to find.  Toilet paper was even harder.  It was a luxury, like Cadbury’s chocolate, and expensive, so you did without.  If you weren’t keen to use your fingers, newspaper might do the job, but the local rags fell apart.  The Weekly, on the other hand, was durable, but thin and light, designed for delivery by air.  It arrived on time every week.  The paper was also silky smooth.  In short, ideal for wiping my arse and anybody else’s.  For the sake of economy, I tore each page into eight pieces, but the pages were small to start with.  A gentleman would have cut them into four.

I didn’t go through all this at the picnic.  I had only just been disciplined for spitting and for stinginess with wine.  The anecdote in its original form was a wee bit strong.  What can now be termed ‘the Cambridge version’ was not so controversial, and it was shorter.  It got to the rub, so to speak, more quickly.  In fact, not much happened before the punchline, in which I criticised the paper for the first and only time: “The print came off.”

That’s right, I panned the Weekly.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Aγάπη μου

A pair of English girls arrived in Salonica.  Jade and Joy.  In the party language of the day, they were lots of fun.  Jade had left a boyfriend in England.  She complained that the Greek boys kept asking for a connection.  She emphasised the word ironically, as if it was the term they actually used. 

We tended to insult each other.  Jade, however, had her confidential moods.  She asked me about the first time I’d “had it.”  I thought her tone was still slightly mocking, so I didn’t reply.  To encourage me, she said, “My first time was with Jeremy.”

There was nearly someone else.  She had given Joy the slip, and come up to see me by herself.  She told me this story.  She’d been stuck without transport, somewhere in Greece, and a man on a scooter gave her a lift.  He was middle-aged.  Before their destination, he turned off the road into scrubland and asked her for sex.  She burst into tears.  It surprised him.

“What’s the matter?  I’m clean.” 

Innocent abroad, if not at home, she hadn’t understood what he meant by clean.  I told her. 

“Oh, probably,” she said. 

More euphemism.  We’re a polite lot, humans.  Later, mockingly, I repeated the story to Joy, in front of Jade. 

“It’s the last time I’ll tell you anything,” she said.

Joy was more intelligent than Jade, though Jade was no fool.  Joy was better at repartee.  If I couldn’t think of an answer, I’d just say, “I can smell a virgin a mile off,” and her head would drop. 

One day, we went to a taverna with a nice American girl.  There are nice girls.  Joy said something caustic, and I replied, “Be quiet, number two.”

The American wasn’t used to this. 

“Number two?” she inquired.  “And is Jade number one?”  She wasn’t smiling.  “Does that make me number three?”

If only life was so simple.

“You’re never serious!” Jade berated me.  “Why don’t you say something in Greek?”

“Aγάπη μου!” I breathed back, hoarsely.  My love.  She shrieked with laughter.  The American gave an excuse and left.  

Jade discovered that she’d lost her ring.  She was frantic.  She looked under the table, in her pocket, in her bag.  When she couldn’t find it, she went to see if she had dropped it in the bathroom.  

“It’s a very important ring,” Joy explained.  I saw it on the floor, picked it up and held it out for Jade when she returned.  She seized it off me.  

“I could kiss you!”  She was looking at the ring.  “Jeremy gave it to me.”   

I asked Joy if she’d like to visit the bathroom too.

“I’m not washing my hands in there!  Do you know how many germs there are on a bar of soap?”  She then described an experiment which she had done at university.   

Her voice stopped.  When there was enough silence, I said to Jade, “I’m waiting for my kiss.”   

           At the end of twelve months, the girls went back to England.  I gave them each a toy koala.  Jade grabbed hers and hugged it.  Just before she left, she kissed her fingertips and pressed them against my cheek. 

They sent me a letter or two.  Joy moved to China.  Jade lost her koala on the way to Athens airport.  Jeremy dumped her after she got home.

I wonder if she kept the ring.

Friday, 8 August 2014

A glass of ouzo

I have this memory of Mt Athos, on the shore below Zográphou Monastery, where the monks have their port, or Arsenal.  There’d been a storm, but you wouldn’t know.  The sea and the sky were a single, creamy blue, like milk poured in water, then left completely still.  Just looking at it made you want to sleep.

The last time I went with Bryan, he wandered off just before a meal.  He was probably thinking about something and forgot the time.  Maybe things like time didn’t matter anymore.  I had to tell the monks, so they’d leave some food out for him when he wandered back.  They were annoyed. 

“This isn’t a hotel!”   

No one worried about him.  It didn’t occur to anyone that he wouldn’t come back.  On the hot stones outside the monastery, one of the monks interrogated me, how I knew Bryan, where we’d met, how long I’d known him.  They were all important questions, but they weren’t going to bring Bryan back.  I felt I was being punished.  I didn’t tell Bryan.  That night, when he was snoring, I punched him in the arm. 

Bryan went to Athos again, by himself.  He asked me, but I didn’t go.  It must have hurt him.  He knew it would be his last trip.  Now I don’t have a choice.  If I go, it won’t be with Bryan.

When I was living in Salonica, a pair of English girls would turn up each year.  They stayed for twelve months, then left for England and didn’t return.  Their names usually started with the same letter, like Candy and Cassie, who were just out of school.  They really wanted to go to Mt Athos, but women aren’t allowed.  I told them about Bryan.  I repeated one of his sentences, and Candy said: “I don’t want to know anyone like that.” 

They never met.  You don’t let your kittens play with the St Bernard.

Cassie, white as milk beside the local girls, even next to Candy, had a Greek boyfriend called Athos.  They were getting very close.  Candy mentioned this one day when Cassie wasn’t there.  I couldn’t help saying, “She’s going to mount Athos after all.”  I thought Candy would laugh, but she just looked irritated.  I blushed like a child.

When they were leaving, both girls swore they’d come back to visit.

“You won’t come back,” I said.  They were cross, vowed they’d prove me wrong, left, and didn’t come back.

Bryan comes back, in different places.  Most often, the hill at Xeropotámou, above Símona Petra.  The monks had made a bench to sit on to admire the view, and that’s what Bryan was doing.  An old cat jumped up on his lap.  Bryan looked towards me in a telling way.  A whole monastery to sleep in, and she'd chosen him.

There were shadows now.  Better get down to Símona Petra before they lock the door.  Don’t miss out on the welcome tray, your coffee and loukoumi, a glass of ouzo, a glass of water.  Put water in the ouzo, and it looks like milk.